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Himalayan Salt History – Origins and Cultural Significance

Himalayan Salt

Himalayan salt is a rock salt that is mined from the ancient salt deposits found in the Punjab region of Pakistan. The salt, which often has a pinkish to light reddish-brown tint due to trace minerals present in it, is primarily utilized as a seasoning to supersede refined table salt and is additionally utilized for cooking, finishing salt, home decor, spa, and wellness treatments.

What Is Himalayan Salt?

As mentioned above, it is the rock salt that is only found in the salt mines located in Pakistan, near the foothills of the Himalayas, that is why it is also known as Pakistan salt. Some people describe Himalayan salt as one of the clean salts available and believe that it has numerous wellness benefits.

Pink Himalayan salt is chemically akin to table salt. It has up to 98 % sodium chloride. The other 2% is composed of trace minerals, such as zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and many more. These minerals though present in trace quantities give the salt its distinguishing light pink tint along with different health and wellness benefits. These minerals tell us why Himalayan rock salt tastes and looks different from conventional table salt.

Let’s discuss in detail the long history of the formation and discovery of this unique salt.

History Of Himalayan salt

Pakistan Himalayan salt was formed over 250 million years ago due to the evaporation of primordial oceans found in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is found under rocky mountains that protect it from environmental factors. The ancient sea beds inside this mountain range, where this salt is obtained, were once covered by lava. The lava served as a natural barrier that has averted toxins and other pollutants from reaching the salt. Because of this reason, this salt has remained pollutant-free and pure all these years.

The ancient people first utilized this salt as a preservative. It kept their fish and meat from spoiling for long periods. For this reason, this salt was traded to nearby areas. It was also being used for seasoning meals. The local people would utilize yaks to carry the salt during their peregrinations along mountains, cliffs, and rocky paths so they could trade this valuable product.

Discovery of Himalayan Pink Salt

Some researchers believe that the salt range was initially formed more than 800 million years ago by the natural evaporation process of the shallow underground sea. Later, the geological movement resulted in the salt formation in the mines that now extend to more than 300 km.

Eastwards Campaign of Alexander The Great

The story of Himalayan salt discovery goes back more than 23 centuries, around 326 BC, when Alexander the Great started his journey eastwards. He recently had achieved a momentous victory over Porus at the Jhelum River, previously known by a Greek name, Hydaspes, among many historians.

You can search on Google maps that the Khewra salt mines are pretty close to the Jhelum river. According to the calculation of Alexander’s team of geography experts, the end of the world was only 600 miles away. All he needed was to conquer India to accomplish his milestone of conquering the entire world. However, as history knows, he never conquered the whole world.

At a certain point, while going past the Jhelum River, some of his cavalry horses begin licking the stones. Later, his troops found out that the stones were salty. This way, salt was first discovered in the hills, now known as the salt range.

However, historians aren’t sure about the credibility of the story? At the time of British occupation of the region, it was quite a prevalent concept to associate anything or everything to Alexander the Great, hence the background of the salt discovery.

In essence, Alexander the Great hadn’t discovered the Himalayan salt; instead, it was his horses who made the discovery.

13th Century and Mughal Empire

Moving forward, historians haven’t found any records of organized mining until the 13th Century by Janjua Raja. One may assume that people had started gathering salt in small-scale operations once they knew its great value.

Later in the 16th century, the Mughal Empire, led by their first Emperor, Babur, started utilizing salt until the empire was utterly exhausted. In 1809, the Punjabi Sikhs kicked the Mughals out of their region and took over the salt mines. By the way, these Sikhs named the salt mines “Khewra.” In an unfortunate turn of events, the British moved in only 40 years.

The Sikhs divided the mines primarily into two sections:

  • Hari Singh Nalwa was the Sikh commander-in-chief of the Warcha mine.
  • Gulab Sing, the Raja of Jammu, took control of the Khewra mines.

Later, the Sikhs started to use salt for food and trade within the region. They used to transport the salt to Central Asia as a premium-quality trade item. However, at that time, the mining process of Himalayan salt was extremely dangerous due to a lack of equipment. Not only that, the tunnels were narrow with zero availability of water inside. That’s why the Sikhs weren’t fully able to explore the salt deposits.

British Era

We all know that the British came here to the sub-continent for only one reason and that’s business. That’s why without any delay, they chalked out a plan using tunnel excavation and forced laborers to mine salt on a commercial level.

Not only that, but they also renamed the salt mines as Mayo Salt Mines, after Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India. The men, women, and children were forced to work and later locked inside until they didn’t finish their respective quotas of salt mining. Moreover, 12 men were shot and killed during a protest in 1876.

Room and Pillar Concept

The situation improved when the engineer was in charge of the main tunnel. Dr. H. Warth proposed an innovative method of excavation, known as the room-and-pillar method. In traditional excavation methods, the caverns and tunnels were blasted until they either collapsed, burying everyone inside, or simply ran out of the mineral deposits.

Conversely, a room-and-pillar method distributes the excavated salt rocks into two equal parts. One part remains undisturbed in the form of pillars to provide the desired support to the tunnel or cavern’s ceiling, while the other portion is mined and transported outside the tunnel. The workers mine the salt rocks across the horizontal plane, creating horizontal arrays of pillars and rooms inside the salt mines.

Essentially, the rock salt extraction process is divided into two phases. In the first phase, the pillars remain untouched, so they provide the desired support to the roof. Later, the laborers undergo the extraction process from the open areas or, as we call them, rooms. However, it’s essential to select an optimum pillar size, which plays a critical role in the mining phase.

The rule of thumb is to keep the size of the room and pillars equal because smaller pillars will cause the mine to collapse. Consequently, the rooms look like a mesmerizing pinkish maze of salt.

Not only that, but the British revolutionized the concept of salt mining to make the process more efficient by building warehouses. They also widened the tunnels and deployed different machinery to excavate salt rocks on a bigger level. Moreover, the authorities also enforced rules to minimize illegal salt smuggling.

Industrial Modernization

After the first world war, the British began to use heavy equipment such as steam engines, electricity, and two 500 horsepower diesel generators in the 1920s. Industrial modernization enhanced salt production from hundreds to thousands of tons per year. During British rule, the Himalayan pink salt production reached 287,000 tons per annum.

Present Situation

Even though new mining techniques haven’t replaced the primary transportation of salt rocks from inside the mines. The salt rocks are placed in rail cars, which run on a narrow two-feet wide track laid by the British in the 19th century.

Today, Himalayan pink salt is mined on a very large scale and is being exported across the globe. Mining in this area is stringently regulated to preserve the purity of this product. At the present moment, the salt mine’s internal tunnel system extends around 25 miles through 19 levels. This salt is often referred to as “white gold” in the local community. It is considered a national commodity that increases exports and brings great revenue to the country.

Nonetheless, The Khewra Mines produce around 400,000 tons of Himalayan pink salt each year, making it one of the most productive salt mines worldwide. Another good news is that the mine can sustain this level of salt production for more than 350 years without exhausting its current deposits. It is estimated that around 600 million tons of Himalayan rock salt are currently present at the Khewra salt mines.


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